The Israelites Leave Egypt
I’ve known people who, in the midst of difficulty, have said, “Well, God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” This saying may be said affirmatively or ironically. The saying isn’t actually in the Bible but is a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” In other words, God is with us when we have difficult times, even though, we might add, things do get very bad sometimes and God’s help may seem not to be forthcoming. (If I recall correctly, the "you" in this verse is plural in the Greek, reflecting the fact that Paul wrote to a group of people who, ideally, would support one another.)
Our reading from Exodus is a scripture that benefits from a good map; flip in your Bible to the map that describes the journeys of the Israelites under Moses' leadership. As the text tells us, the Israelites left Egypt via Goshen---“Land o’ Goshen!” was an expression I sometimes heard my grandmother use---and then, once they crossed the sea, the Israelites had a potential straight route: across the land, inland from the Mediterranean, toward the Promised Land via Gaza.
But our reading indicates that the Israelites did not go that way: “God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, ‘If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness towards the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle… They set out from Succoth, and camped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night.”
As we know from elsewhere in the text, the Israelites were an unhappy people, prone to complaint. They did not have the bold resolve of, for instance, former slaves in America willing to fight in the Union army for their freedom (although reading does say they prepared themselves by organizing into groups in order to deal with a possible threat, verse 18). So God provided for their journey, even guiding them by a wiser route than the obvious, straighter road.
How wonderful if, in our own difficult times, we could know the future and the "big picture"! To me, that is the most difficult thing about a crisis situation. How long will I be unemployed? Will my loved one recover soon? How long will I have to wait for benefits? What is going to happen in a difficult national or world situation? How long will my terminally ill loved one live? How long will I grieve so deeply?
Knowing in advance would also help us face the situation. The Israelites were unprepared for conflict with the Philistines, and sometimes we enter into painful situations without being “steeled” for the struggle. It’s a painful thing to realize that we haven’t been our best selves when dealing with a problem.
When we are worried, we can keep in mind passages like Psalm 23, 121, Romans 8:38-39, and others that affirm God’s tender care. Although some situations are overwhelming and terrible, God is always close to us, and in hindsight we may see how God was with us and guiding us. I remember a time when I felt over my head in a problem, and I was discouraged that God seemingly hadn’t helped me. Years later, though, I realized that God had been present in the whole situation.
In your own life and journeys, think of ways that God may be leading you, and possibly helping you avoid circumstances for which you were unprepared.